This fall, chef Peter Cho and partner Sun Young Park, the duo behind destination Korean restaurant Han Oak, will head across the river with Toki, a new restaurant and market in the former Tasty N Alder space in downtown’s West End neighborhood.
What will the new restaurant look like? We won’t really know for months, if not years. Cho and Park have brainstormed a handful of inspired ideas, from a Korean-influenced pizzeria to a hip downtown KBBQ joint, but they have no plans to dive back into dine-in service anytime soon, perhaps until there’s a coronavirus vaccine. For now, Toki’s menu will stick to comforting dishes with creative twists, plus convenience store-inspired grab-and-go items, beer and wine, all available for takeout only.
In the months after the pandemic-forced closure of dining rooms across Oregon, few restaurants took a more cautious approach to reopening than Han Oak. In part, that’s because Cho, Park and their two young sons had just moved out of their home of the last four years, a small apartment tucked behind one of the restaurant’s walls. And then the virus hit close to home. In April, as the family remained isolated at their new house in Southeast Portland, Park learned that her grandmother had died of complications from COVID-19.
But as the weeks turned into months, the couple, who continued to pay health insurance for their laid-off staff, soon burned through their reserve funds and a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. According to Park, a turning point came when they returned to the space with older son Elliott, who described his former home as feeling “broken.”
“That’s when I realized, I can’t just shelter my children,” Park said. “I have to show them how to fight through a pandemic, and show them courage over fear. That pushed us out of doom and gloom and hopelessness. We got back and started cleaning everything up and waded into the waters of reopening again.”
Han Oak launched takeout service at the beginning of August, offering their signature fried chicken wings, set barbecue plates and a new pan-seared bao burger filled with two dry-aged beef patties, American cheese, onions and secret sauce in a steamed sesame bun. Expect that bao burger to make an appearance downtown, along with marinated meats you can take home and grill, kimbap rolls and a small selection of wines picked out by Ross Maloof of Maloof Wines.
Though Cho once swore he would never serve the bibimbap, the ubiquitous rice dish that ranks among Korea’s best-known exports, he has found himself working on a version for Toki, only this one is upside down, with local farm vegetables and meat under a dome of crispy rice ala the Persian rice dish tahdig.
“We’re not expecting things to be gangbusters like they were before COVID,” Cho said. “(Toki) will give us time to figure things out. Because Han Oak has only ever been open four days a week, not for any other reason than we just didn’t want to work like crazy, I think we’ve always been inaccessible. Right now is a time for us to be more accessible, be open more hours and give more opportunity for people to enjoy our food.”
Park said she’s found herself reflecting on how the duo have handled the past six months, moving past the initial fear to now, when economic circumstances have forced the couple to expand.
“I think the reality of COVID hit me really hard because my grandma died,” Park said. “At first, I felt really alone in the choices I was making. I couldn’t get out of bed. And then with BLM (Black Lives Matter), which is the most important thing that’s happened for us, especially having children who are not white, completely consumed our headspace, and the restaurant just didn’t seem to matter. It was about family, COVID, BLM, and our children. And then the money starts to run out. You can’t afford health insurance month after month to care for your staff. Despite the virus still being prevalent, we had to get back to work.”
Cho and Park had discussed the possibility of opening a new restaurant in one of Portland developer Greg Goodman’s buildings over the years, but had never pulled the trigger. Then came the Facebook outburst that toppled prominent Portland chef John’s Gorham’s restaurant empire. In July, just after The Oregonian/OregonLive reported that Gorham’s Toro Bravo Inc. was dissolving, Goodman reached out to Cho about taking over one of the restaurant group’s former flagship restaurants, Tasty N Alder, offering a deal that included rent tied to a portion of sales and two months free to prep the turnkey space. (The new lease also means we’re unlikely to see Pocha, the pint-sized drinking-food restaurant Cho and Park had hoped to open in a micro restaurant space just around the corner from Han Oak. At least for now.)
“We have no choice,” Park said. “Our backs are against the wall. Taking another space will give us the opportunity to take back more staff, and our landlord is offering us an opportunity to do that at a lower risk. And Greg is taking a risk on us by putting a small minority-owned business there. That means a lot to us. We’re all putting our necks out on the line for each other.”
Toki hopes to open as soon as next month at 580 S.W. 12th Ave. For more information, keep an eye on Han Oak’s Instagram page.